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Architects as Advocates: A Conversation With Kimberly Dowdell and Michele L. Van Hyfte

Two HOK leaders talk about how they’re extending the influence of architects beyond traditional boundaries.

Kimberly Dowdell (left), director of strategic relationships, and Michele L. Van Hyfte (right), sustainable design leader for resiliency, are redefining the traditional roles of architects. Their careers show how architects can drive positive change beyond buildings to shape communities, policies and more.

Dowdell, 2024 president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and past president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), often advocates for equity and social change through architecture. Based in Chicago, she bridges sectors, connecting design firms, clients, professional organizations, developers, government agencies and academia. Dowdell co-founded Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) in 2005 to promote sustainable development. She co-chairs HOK’s Diversity Advisory Council, co-founded HOK Impact, the firm’s social responsibility arm, and mentors emerging leaders.

Van Hyfte, who sits in HOK’s Austin studio, has extensive background in sustainable and resilient design, including leading urban design, planning and policy initiatives at the Downtown Austin Alliance. Before that, as Seton Healthcare Family’s (now Ascension Texas) sustainability director, she pioneered industry-leading sustainability programs for the organization’s facility design, construction and operations. She serves on the Urban Land Institute’s Austin District Advisory Council, chairs their newest Strategic Council on Climate Impacts and is president of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems’ board.

In this conversation, Dowdell and Van Hyfte share their perspectives on the evolving role of architects.

How have your nontraditional career paths influenced your approach to architecture?

Kimberly: My mission to improve the quality of people’s lives through design started early, from wanting to improve Detroit neighborhoods as a middle school student to founding a public interest design organization called SEED in college. This drive to create positive change has taken me to roles spanning architecture, government, community development, teaching and real estate. My time working with the City of Detroit reinforced that policy decisions shape what gets built. Earning a master’s in public administration taught me how real estate meshes with all the other challenges being navigated within the public sector. These diverse experiences equipped me to take on architectural challenges—from grassroots neighborhood housing to commercial downtown revitalization—at different scales.

Michele: Growing up on a farm in rural Illinois, I’ve always felt pulled between appreciating nature and cities—and seeking methodologies that allow both to thrive. Designing and building sustainably became an innate calling. My early days starting green initiatives and my hunger for leadership led me to found an architecture firm dedicated to sustainability long before it was mainstream. Subsequent roles have enabled my passion for improving communities through sustainability, policy, urban planning and economic development lenses.

Can you share an early experience that sparked your interest in advocacy or showed you the power advocacy can have?

Kimberly: One of my formative experiences happened in my fifth year of architecture school, when Hurricane Katrina hit. At the time, Cornell was welcoming displaced Tulane students to transfer and continue their education. I wrote a letter to the provost saying we should also invite students from impacted HBCUs. Shortly after, students from other universities were also invited. It was empowering to realize my letter helped to make that happen. I saw firsthand the impact of advocacy. Early experiences like that can help people understand the power of their voice and motivate them to find other ways to speak up.

Michele: During my undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois, a studio project funded by a community development block grant deeply influenced me. It showed me how design intersects with policy, funding, land use and community needs. In working with a disadvantaged, low-income community, I realized the power of public policy to uplift people in need. It was humbling because you quickly learn that you’re one small grain of sand on the beach. But you might be lucky enough to raise that voice to make a difference. It was inspiring to see how advocacy paired with good design could improve people’s lives.

How has your educational background in architecture shaped your career?

Kimberly: My ten semesters in architecture school fostered a high level of personal resilience. You get thrown into the fire right away and have to figure it out. It also equipped me with the ability to switch gears frequently through new challenges—breaking down complex problems into manageable pieces. My university also encouraged us to take classes outside of architecture, which helped me expand my horizons and even pursue a different area of study in graduate school. The diversity of my educational experiences has had a major impact on my career trajectory.

Michele: Architectural education trains students to be ultimate problem solvers—our greatest skill. If you’re an excellent strategic thinker and problem solver, you can excel in many roles. Yet, in the early ‘90s, architectural education prioritized becoming a great designer and did not help students understand how to apply their skills across different contexts. So, I sought out courses, professors and extracurricular activities that exposed me to professional practice, advocacy and urban planning. Those experiences showed me how I could make a positive impact beyond the role of designer.

Can you share how advocacy and public policy have impacted your work?

Kimberly: I’ve always had the ability to identify problems and work with others to find solutions. Before deciding to pursue architecture at age 11, I wanted to be a doctor in order to help people. Once I learned about architecture in an art class, I began to believe that if we could improve the built environment, we could help heal people on a larger scale. Today, I live in Chicago, where there’s a 30-year life expectancy gap between the city’s north and south sides. I find this kind of disparity to be deeply troubling. In response, I’m posing the question to our profession: What can we do to better protect the public’s health, safety and welfare? And though I’m not involved in the day-to-day operation, that’s the mission of SEED: To advance the right of every person to live in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community. How can we amplify the efforts of individuals, organizations, institutions and companies engaged in this important work?

When I joined HOK in 2008, a small group of young and emerging architects helped create HOK Impact to organize and amplify our global social responsibility activities. I’m currently co-chair of HOK’s Diversity Advisory Council. We launched HOK Tapestry to help build more relationships and expand opportunities for MWBE-owned and other disadvantaged firms. As the director of strategic relationships, I continue to seek ways to connect the dots between what’s happening in different parts of our firm and the broader community. This includes fostering connections with local officials and partners and emphasizing the importance of climate action and equity in our field.

As AIA president this year, one of my goals is to elevate the role of architects in civic discourse and policymaking. One way I’m doing this is by urging U.S. mayors to appoint a chief architect as a key advisor on issues being confronted in the built environment.

Michele: At Seton Healthcare, now part of Ascension Texas, I led a program defining what it meant to be a green hospital system, aligning healthcare delivery with sustainable design principles and practices. I was also part of a team that delivered a new teaching hospital at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas in Austin. In these projects, I saw the impact of my previous advocacy efforts with USGBC and AIA that promoted standards for healthy materials and building systems.

My advocacy leadership with the Downtown Austin Alliance emphasized the impact of urban revitalization and quality public spaces on community well-being. That role gave me a voice alongside civic and institutional decision-makers, pushing for socially focused outcomes.

Policies must be forward-thinking and anticipate future issues. More importantly, they must respond to the present and learn from the past. As we face an ever-changing climate, I’m applying this experience to my resiliency work at HOK. My goal is to create future-ready, adaptable design strategies for critical community assets. Being an advocacy leader is an important component of shaping the built environment. If the policies aren’t in place, your design won’t get built. I learned this from leading advocacy committees for the USGBC, AIA and community advisory groups. I’ve experienced some epic successes—and failures—at the local, county and state levels. It’s transformative to see how much collaboration goes into policymaking.

Should advocacy and activism be promoted more in design professions and practices?

Kimberly: Absolutely. Although not all designers will gravitate toward advocacy, raising awareness of its power could spur more training and engagement. Giving people advocacy skills— especially emerging professionals—creates expanded empowerment. By equipping designers with greater agency to create positive change, everyone will benefit.

Michele: Architects’ design thinking and problem-solving skills are incredibly valuable for advocacy leadership. Our human- and nature-focused design perspective offers excellent value. Exposure and involvement can draw out innate advocates. Mentors pulled me into this world by seeing strengths I hadn’t seen in myself. We can tell others, “You’re already an advocate—you just don’t know it yet!” My frequent experience as the only architect in the room has given me the fuel, knowledge and confidence to make unique contributions to conversations. I will always encourage architects to engage with public policy.

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